If you've spent any amount of time in online discussion groups, you probably know that their single most defining characteristic is the prevalence of angry, epithet-strewn arguments, called "flamewars."
The level of online hostility, with "flames" fired back and forth among participants, can at times make these groups appear to be the ultimate refuge for sociopaths releasing years of pent-up frustration. The safety of distance and relative anonymity make these verbal battles virtually risk free.
Recently, best-selling author Anne Rice made headlines by responding to flames directed toward her and her latest novel Blood Canticle in the discussion area of Amazon.com, the online bookseller and e-commerce site. Among them:
• "I cannot stress to you how bad this book is."
• "I have read almost every one of Anne Rice's novels, and I have to say this is the worst one."
• "I have read short stories by eighth graders that had more thought than this drivel did."
• "Anne, you really should have an editor, or at least someone that would read your book before you send it off to print."
• "Anne Rice is overrated. Her books are long, drawn out and boring."
Other people attacked her state of mind since the death of her husband two years ago.
Flaming isn't unique to the online world or our times. Those debating the U.S. Constitution more than 200 years ago dissed each other mercilessly in letters published in local newspapers, using epithets such as "paltry scribbler" and "weak intellect."
Writers in particular get criticized. Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Jane Austen: "Miss Austen's novels seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world." Thomas Carlyle, in turn, called Ralph Waldo Emerson "a hoary-headed toothless baboon."
What's best about the online world is its interactivity. In response to the flames, Rice, whose best-known book is Interview With the Vampire, interacted.
She left a flame of her own, lambasting her critics in a 1,200-word rant: "Your stupid, arrogant assumptions about me and what I am doing are slander.... You have used the site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehood and lies.... Be assured of the utter contempt I feel for you."
It can be tempting to do what Rice did, to respond in kind to those who say unflattering or untrue things about you online. But lowering yourself to the level of your attackers isn't necessarily a good idea. This applies even more so if you're responding to attacks against your business or organization.
On the other hand, because of the Internet's inherent interactivity, it's generally not a good idea to remain silent, which can appear haughty or cowardly.
The best approach in many cases is to try to establish a dialogue. If someone has blasted you or your organization, ask about the circumstances that led to the person's dissatisfaction. Come across as humane. Angry, hateful people are usually hurting. Say you're sorry about the situation, and ask how you might resolve it together.
Sometimes the best approach is humor, with the self-deprecating Rodney Dangerfield type more effective than the biting Don Rickles type. You want to avoid aggravating the antagonism. Otherwise, you may come across to others as Goliath fighting with little David. David will win this kind of public relations battle every time.
Taking the high road also means knowing when to shut up. Acknowledge the criticism, state your case, offer some gentle persuasion and move on.
Flamewars can suck you into a vast cybervoid, wasting time that can be better spent elsewhere. They also have the potential of getting you in trouble legally if you say something you know is false that damages someone's reputation.
On the other hand, online debate can sometimes be akin to sport, with participants engaging in ritual battle. But instead of name-calling and personal attacks, the weapons of choice are logic, wordplay and witty repartee. The focus should be on the substance of the subject matter under discussion. Approached with amused detachment, these kinds of online duels can reach the level of a minor art form.
By far the most the more common type, however, is more reminiscent of chimpanzees screeching at one another, which motivates most people to stay clear. To avoid starting a flamewar, post as if you're sitting in the living room of those reading your messages. To avoid prolonging one, just ignore it. Flames don't burn in a vacuum.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.